Fun with foodies in the city

Vancouver Magazine 's Restaurant Awards certainly are a swank affair. A veritable who's who of the city's foodie scene, the annual event is a definitive voice in a diverse, often ego-driven industry.

These awards, the 21 st for Van Mag , shine a spotlight on the best and brightest in a talented industry that is so often tucked away, hidden in the kitchens. The 41 categories include - best restaurant, new restaurant, bartender, chef, design, seafood and Italian (formal and casual). Unlike many other "best of" awards (including our own here at Pique), winners are selected by a panel of 19 judges who dine out throughout the year (from Dec. 1 to Nov. 30) and weigh in with a scored ranking, which is then verified by an accountant. It all sounds like a very official process, indeed.

So, why does this event matter to Whistler?

Well, according to Tourism Whistler figures from the summer of 2009, 28 per cent of the visitors that came to Whistler between May and October are from the Lower Mainland. And chances are, if they like to eat out, they've checked out the Restaurant Awards issue of Vancouver Magazine, which just so happens to feature a "Best of Whistler" category every year. This year, our local nominees were the usual suspects: Araxi, Bearfoot Bistro, the Four Seasons' Fifty-Two 80 Bistro, Hy's Steakhouse and Trattoria di Umberto.

I was fortunate enough to snag an invite to this year's awards, which were held at the Sheraton Vancouver Wall Centre Hotel on Tuesday afternoon, and had the opportunity to see the winners announced, live. An added bonus was the pre-award show reception, a spread of decadent dishes prepared by the nominated restaurants, to be sampled and washed down with glasses of bubbly and wine. Think shot glasses of panzanella salad shooters with shaved romaine, brioche croutons, basil-tossed grape tomatoes, shaved grana padano and spiced marinated local salmon, gazpacho served in chic martini glasses and smoked salmon lollipops stuffed with goats cheese - little bites that add up to one delicious lunch.

Whistler's Fifty-Two 80 Bistro, which is soon to be relaunched as Sidecut, was also on-hand at the event sampling Kobe beef sushi-style rolls, skewers and oysters - and creating a buzz with the meat-loving masses who kept coming back for more.

And of course, there was the small matter of a decadent dessert table - the "chocolate table of sin" as I fondly thought of it - which was laden with sweet, rich treats like bite-sized chocolate financiers. As I contemplated camping out at this treasure trove, the reception portion of the event wound down and people began taking their seats for the main event: the awards portion of the afternoon.

For anyone who likes to dine out in the city on occasion, here's a run-down of the winners of the main categories: Best New Restaurant went to Campagnolo, and Best Chef was awarded to Frank Pabst of Blue Water Café + Raw Bar, which also won the distinction of Best Restaurant of the Year. Clearly, it was a big night for the Top Table Group (the company that's behind Blue Water Café + Raw Bar in Yaletown, Robson Street's Cin Cin, West in Granville Rise, and Whistler's very own Araxi). In fact, Araxi took back their crown in the Whistler category this year, after being unseated in the event by Bearfoot Bistro last year. Bearfoot was awarded Silver, and Hy's snagged Bronze for their "persistence of vision." In other Whistler-related foodie news, La Rúa took home the Bronze award in the Best Other European category, as well.

The list of winners at the Restaurant Awards has now become my own personal laundry list of places to check out: I can't wait to get my fill of Thai at Maenam (I'm still mourning the closure of Whistler's Thai One On), check out the casual Italian offerings at l'Altro Buca and maybe even make my way to Vancouver Island to find out what's made Sooke Harbour House a source of inspiration for West Coast chefs for over 30 years. (Sinclair Philip of Sooke was honoured with the Lifetime Achievement Award at this year's event.)

The event also featured insightful video clips on economic challenges faced by the industry over the past two years, troubles which were further compounded by the unknown element of the Olympics and a somewhat fickle clientele. A clever little segment saw Vancouver food critics tricked into cooking for the chefs at restaurants where they regularly dine and then dissect. Needless to say, restaurateurs and chefs got a kick out of seeing the script flipped, for once, and food writers were blushing and chuckling sheepishly in their seats.

A full list of award winners can be found in the June issue of Vancouver Magazine , or online at www.vanmag.com.



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